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“The Churchills – A Family Portrait” by Celia Lee and John Lee

An excerpt of the recently released new work – Part 1 of 2

The kind permission was given by Celia and John Lee, along with their publisher, to run an excerpt in two parts from their recently released new book, The Churchills, A Family Portrait. Part 1 is the marriage of Jack Churchill and Lady Gwendeline. Look for Part 2 in next month’s Chartwell Bulletin; the courtship and marriage of Winston and Clementine.

By 1907 the Churchill brothers had matured into two very good-looking young men. Winston, at five feet eight inches tall, with red hair and pale skin and a high color in his cheeks, was slightly smaller than his younger brother. Jack always looked tanned from his outdoor pursuits, and was well developed physically from his horse-riding activities with the Oxfordshire Hussars at the weekends, though his black hair was somewhat sparse at age twenty-seven.

Sometime in 1906-07, Jack found himself falling in love with the lovely Lady Gwendeline (“Goonie” as she was known in the family), a daughter of the earl by his second marriage. Born on November 20, 1885, Goonie had been educated at home by a governess, which was usual for ladies of the aristocracy. She was tall, with a good figure, dark hair, clear, blue eyes, and pale complexion, and there was something of an air of innocence about her. Goonie was “not considered beautiful in the conventional sense of the word,” but she was described as lovely, and was “adored by all who knew her.” It was her “atmosphere and charm” that lent her a unique kind of inward beauty. She was a good conversationalist, and of a kind and understanding disposition, but witty, with a great sense of humor, and was very artistic, painting scenes in oils.


Jack and Goonie had been introduced by her same relative, Frank Bertie, who had introduced Randolph to Jennie in 1873. From 1906, Jack became a frequent visitor to Wytham Abbey.


Their romance began in earnest in the early summer of 1907. But as Jack had little in the way of money, and no title, they could not, for the time being, let her parents know about their romance. Jack used to make the seven-mile ride on horseback, from Blenheim to Wytham Woods, where Goonie would be waiting on horseback, and they met in secret. Meanwhile, Jack tried to improve his financial prospects sufficiently that he could approach her father for permission to marry her.

Jack wrote to Winston who was in Africa for several months from October, in his role as under secretary to the colonies, November 14, 1907, that he was in love with Goonie, and that he had declared himself to her:

I am writing to tell you that a very wonderful thing has happened. Goonie loves me. I have loved her for a long time-This is absolutely secret. Only my mother and George know about it. Her parents know nothing. Nor must they-until I can come with some proposition.

Winston responded graciously. He would later write to his mother that Jack had a very much better understanding of women than he did. That he easily “got in touch” with them, and greatly depended on feminine influence “for the peace and harmony of his soul.” Winston freely confessed to being “stupid and clumsy” in that respect.


Goonie’s father, Montagu Arthur Bertie was a severe man, though he was himself feckless with money, losing heavily at the races. He had converted to Roman Catholicism with his first wife, and though Goonie was by his second wife, the children were all brought up in the Catholic faith. The young couple feared telling him of their romance lest he put a stop to it, for Jack as yet had not a great income that would keep a wife.


Due to panic selling of shares on New York’s Wall Street that October, which affected Jack’s income as a stockbroker, his income was not likely to increase immediately. But the faithful Goonie vowed to Jack that she would wait and wait, until he could come and claim her. There were serious problems with the copper market, and the price had slumped. Jack discussed this and his love life in a series of letters to Winston of 1907-8. Jack’s letter of November 14, continued: I have only seen Goonie for two minutes at a Railway Station! Was there ever such a way of making love.” But he had he said, spoken to his employer, Mr. Paul Nelke, a senior partner in Nelke, Phillips & Company, Stockbrokers, about his financial prospects.


In December, Goonie plucked up her courage and told her mother of their love for each other, who then forbade her to see Jack. Hidden away in her old schoolroom in Wytham Abbey, she wrote in secret to Winston, December 16, pouring her heart out: “Jack and I are so happy, but, Winston is it not cruel that I am not allowed to see him & even writing is forbidden, though I do write all the same.”

In June 1908, Jack approached Goonie’s father, and he gave his consent to the marriage. The engagement ring was a family heirloom, a sapphire and diamond ring, that Randolph had given to Jennie-it was one of three. It had been his wish that one each would be passed down to his son’s intended brides. Jennie’s house book for her country home, Salisbury Hall, shows that Goonie and Jack visited on July 3. Underneath Goonie’s signature is Jack’s, and a drawing of a heart with an arrow through the center.


Jack had agreed to be married in the Catholic Church, but in accordance with the law Catholics had also to register a civil marriage. Winston was to be the witness at the registry office, and best man at the church service. He came to stay for the wedding with his cousin, Captain Freddie Guest and his wife, at a rented house, Burley Hall, near Oakham. After a jolly, and somewhat liquid, evening meal, they all went to bed. In the early hours of the morning of August 6, a fire started and everyone fled from the house some still in their pajamas. The fire brigade arrived, and Winston, donning a fireman’s helmet and taking control, proceeded to direct the operations of the firemen. An eyewitness later related how, in heroic style, Winston climbed a ladder onto the roof with a fire hose in his hand and tried to put out the blaze all by himself.


On August 7 the registry office marriage took place as a formality only to satisfy the requirements of the state. On August 8, the lovely twenty-three-year-old Gwendeline was escorted down the aisle on her father’s arm. Her wedding gown was of ivory satin charmeuse; the under sleeves were delicately ornamented with silver. She wore a wreath of myrtle, and a veil of white tulle, and carried a huge bouquet of roses and lilies. Her betrothed, Captain John Strange Spencer-Churchill, wore a morning suit in tails, as did Winston as best man. Goonie was served by five bridesmaids: her sister, Lady Elizabeth (Betty) Bertie; the Misses Doris and Olivia Harcourt, cousins of the bride; and the Misses Iris and Daphne Grenfell, cousins of the bridegroom. They wore dresses of white muslin over silk, tied with soft satin sashes of pale blue; on their heads they wore white lace caps. The pageboy was dressed in Directoire costume, a style inspired by the French Revolution, of white nankeen trousers, and a blue satin coat.

The Woodstock Squadron of the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars, Jack’s men, formed a guard of honor outside the church, making an arch of crossed swords.


The reception was hosted by the Earl and Countess, at Wytham Abbey and a sumptuous feast was provided for family and friends.


When the reception was over, the happy couple left by motorcar for Highgrove, Pinner, a house owned by Jennie’s old flame from 1895, Hugh Warrender, which he had kindly lent them for the honeymoon. The men of the Oxford Yeomanry insisted on pulling the car some distance along the road. The presence of Winston, now a rising star in politics, ensured full press coverage of the wedding.

Excerpted from The Churchills – A Family Portrait by Celia Lee and John Lee. Copyright © 2010 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd. We would like to thank Senior Publicist, Lauren Dwyer for her help in making these arrangements. Photographs are by kind permission of Mrs. Peregrine Spencer-Churchill (Yvonne)

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